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Hanging On in Newark

Rabbi Nosson Scherman

Rabbi Nosson Scherman remembers the shul of his youth

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Linas HaTzedek’s members kept the shul going as long as they could — but how could they win the battle if they saw no future?

 

“T


he Letters are Flying Up”

When I was growing up, my native Newark, New Jersey, had a total population of 430,000 and a Jewish population of over 60,000.

 In the decades since then, the city has lost 100,000 inhabitants, and its Jewish population is certainly under a thousand. In those days, Newark, like every major city with a significant Jewish population, had magnificent shuls, but the Jewish power structure was Reform and Conservative. Orthodox Jews were aging, their stores were almost all open on Shabbos, and Torah chinuch was virtually nonexistent, except for a Lubavitcher Talmud Torah (which I attended) and a few other after-school programs. Later on, the Hebrew Academy day school was founded, but it was too late for me; I was a public school boy until I became a dormitory talmid of Torah Vodaath, at the age of ten.

I used to go to shul with my grandfather z”l, a heimisher chassidisher Yid from Sokalivka, a tiny village in Ukraine, which was the site of a bloody pogrom that led him to bring his family to America in the early 1920s. His wife was murdered on the way. He was my alef-beis rebbi. We lost him on the first night of Rosh Hashanah, when I was eight years old.

Our shul was a shtibel called Linas HaTzedek. It was a frame building with a women’s gallery and an overgrown front yard. The mispallelim were almost all elderly refugees, mostly from Ukraine and Galicia. When I came to shul the average age went down by about 25 years. None of the mispallelim’s children attended the shul. There probably was not a single shomer Shabbos among them. Reb Yussel was the president, baal tefillah, and dictator of the shul. He really was a fine Jew, but although he had many children, not one of them was frum. That was typical in those days.

I remember Reb Volf asking him, “Yussel, what will become of the shtibel? There are no young people!”

Reb Yussel was blunt and a man of few words. He said, “For us it’s enough. Our children don’t need it.”

Unfortunately he was right.

Occasional mispallelim during my early years were Rav Mentelik, mashgiach of the Lubavitcher Yeshivah in Crown Heights and his brother-in-law Rav Katz, a member of the yeshivah’s administration. They would often come to Newark to spend Shabbos with their in-laws, Rav and Rebbetzin Shtockheimer, who, I believe, was the baal tokeia. Interestingly, the baal korei was a young bochur named Nota, who was to become Rav Nota Greenblatt, a major posek in Memphis. (He was also an uncle to Rav Ephraim Greenblatt, author of Rivevos Ephraim and for many years a fellow Memphis resident.)

A common thread among the Orthodox shul-goers in Newark was that there was no future for Torah in America. I’m sure they shed rivers of tears over the religious waywardness of their children, but they saw no hope. How could they, if they lived in a large Jewish community where no one had the foresight and courage to establish a day school?

After World War II, the movement of Newark’s Jews to better neighborhoods and the suburbs accelerated into a flight, as minorities were becoming predominant in the city’s Central Ward. One by one, the magnificent shuls and temples were sold to black churches. The reader can only imagine the heartbreak of driving through the neighborhood and seeing crosses and statues on the shuls where multitudes had once crowded on the Yamim Noraim to daven with some of America’s great chazzanim.

But Linas HaTzedek was an exception. The mispallelim were elderly and dwindling, but they held on. One summer day, when I was 17, my father a”h came home and handed me the shul’s shofar. The baal tokeia had passed away, and my father informed me that I was the new baal tokeia. I had never held a shofar in my life, and I huffed and puffed for weeks before I could get a sound out of it. Finally I became proficient enough to be passable, and set off for shul on the morning of Rosh Hashanah. By that time we had moved and lived two miles away from the shul, but that was not a problem. Of course, I would go to the mikveh, which was only a few blocks from the shul. Imagine my surprise when I entered the building and was greeted by several black nuns!

I stammered, “Isn’t the Jewish ritual bath here?”

“Oh, yes,” they replied. “It’s in the basement.”

The nature of neighborhood change meant that few if any people were still patronizing the mikveh, so the owner rented it to a nunnery, but for some reason he kept the mikveh open (maybe so that it could be available for a frightened young baal tokeia.) The next day I went to the mikveh in the newer Jewish neighborhood.

Not long after that, it became impossible to maintain Linas HaTzedek any longer. A church offered $15,000 for the property, a decent amount of money in those days, but my father, to his eternal zechus, would not permit a shul to be sold for a church. A local Jewish printer offered $7,000 to use the building as a warehouse.

So Linas HaTzedek came to an end. Its Sifrei Torah, seforim, and sale proceeds were distributed to mosdos, but its kedushah was preserved.

There is a happy ending. Reb Yussel, the shul’s president had no doubt — nor did his listeners — that “our children don’t need it.” They were wrong. When Rabi Chanina ben Teradyon was wrapped in a sefer Torah and burned to death by the Romans, he said, “The parchment is burning but the letters are flying up in the air.”

Jewish Newark is gone, but its letters remain in the form of children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of Newark families who are roshei yeshivah, roshei kollel, rabbanim, and community leaders in America and Israel. The letters are indestructible; they only change venues. 

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 749)

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